Taking Care of Heart Health Earlier in Life

April 2, 2014

New research published in recent weeks should have more people in their 20s and 30s paying attention to their heart health for better health, not only in their 60s and 70s, but also in mid-adulthood. While the news is plentiful regarding managing risk factors such as smoking, diet, exercise, blood pressure, and cholesterol to help prevent a cardiovascular event, today’s younger adults may brush that off to dealing with it when they’re older. Now, researchers are taking aim at Generation Y and Millennials to turn the tide earlier before the onset of risk factors for heart disease – the number one killer of both women and men in the United States.

Decisions Today for Clearer Thinking Later

Heart disease may still be considered a disease for senior citizens, as the average age for a first heart attack in men is 65. However, that does not mean it cannot strike earlier. In fact, 4 to 10 percent of heart attacks occur before the age of 45. And heart disease does not happen overnight. Atherosclerosis, or the build up of plaque in the arteries, begins in youth. So it makes sense to manage risk factors as early as possible to avoid a heart attack, right?

Researchers also say you should manage the same risk factors to help maintain your cognitive health. In a first-of-its-kind long-term study, researchers have discovered a link between the presence of risk factors for heart disease and a decline in cognitive function in mid-life. While previous studies looked at the impact later in life, this was the first to hone in on the effects in early adulthood, when many are at or near the peak of their professional careers. 

In an article, lead researcher Dr. Kristine Yaffe of the University of California – San Francisco, explained the significance of the findings. "It's amazing that as a young adult, mildly elevated cardiovascular risks seem to matter for your brain health later in life," Dr. Yaffe said. "We're not talking about old age issues, but lifelong issues."

Risk factors of particular importance included elevated blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Researchers believe this study could lead to further investigation to better understand the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, growing at epidemic proportions in the United States.

You Heart What You Eat and Drink

Another study should have more women in their 20s dishing up fruits and vegetables, as researchers at the University of Minnesota found five cups of produce a day can greatly impact heart health by your 40s. The study found women who ate 8 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day in their 20s, reduced their risk of developing plaque build-up in their arteries by 40 percent two decades later.

This is the first study to examine the impact of eating well in early adulthood and the lasting effects. But if you are thinking, there is no way I ate 8 to 9 servings back then, you may be surprised. A large apple counts as two servings. One large banana, a medium pear and 8 large strawberries each count as one serving. Feeling better?

Habits are hard to break, especially when it comes to our diet. However, new research highlights the importance of starting healthy habits as early as we can. For example, diet drinks may increase our risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Older women, even though they were considered healthy, were 30 percent more likely to suffer a cardiovascular event and 50 percent more likely to die from one if they consume two or more diet drinks a day, compared to women of the same age who did not. The study, presented this week at the American College of Cardiology’s Annual Scientific Session in Washington, D.C., looked at more than 59,000 post-menopausal women.

While more awareness has been raised as to the damaging effects of refined sugar in beverage, a shift towards diet drinks is concerning researchers as well. Diet drink consumption has increased from 17.8 percent to 21.2 percent for women and jumped from 13.9 percent to 19.0 percent for men.

Lead researcher Dr. Ankur Vyas said in a press release, “It’s too soon to tell people to change their behavior based on this study; however, based on these and other findings we have a responsibility to do more research to see what is going on and further define the relationship, if one truly exists,” he adds. “This could have major public health implications.”